Would You Be Happier If You Looked Better?
A Focusing Illusion
Lukasz D. Kaczmarek •Jolanta Enko •Małgorzata Awdziejczyk •
Natalia Hoffmann •Natalia Białobrzeska •Przemysław Mielniczuk •
Stephan U. Dombrowski
ÓThe Author(s) 2014. This article is published with open access at Springerlink.com
Abstract Some people might believe that individuals who are more satisﬁed with their
body are also happier. However, people tend to overrate the inﬂuence of some factors (e.g.
money or health) on their happiness; a phenomenon termed the focusing illusion. Our aim
was to examine the focusing illusion in relation to body satisfaction. We experimentally
manipulated body satisfaction and life satisfaction focus by varying the order of relevant
measurement scales. Volunteers (N=97) completed two questionnaires placed in separate
envelopes to control the order of scales administration. Participants either completed the
Body Satisfaction Scale followed by the Satisfaction with Life Scale or vice versa. In line
with the focusing illusion the association between body satisfaction and life satisfaction
was signiﬁcantly stronger when participants were asked about their body satisfaction ﬁrst.
Body satisfaction as a focusing illusion may need to be considered by scientist as well as
lay people who try to look better and be happier.
Keywords Life satisfaction Body satisfaction Focusing illusion
Theorists have argued that individuals focused on one aspect of life tend to overestimate its
impact on their overall satisfaction with life; a phenomenon termed ‘‘focusing illusion’’
(Schkade and Kahneman 1998). Focusing attention on any aspect of life is thought to
amplify its perceived everyday impact, whereas life satisfaction is the resultant of multiple
factors such as job satisfaction (Judge and Watanabe 1993), martial happiness (Hawkins
L. D. Kaczmarek (&)J. Enko M. Awdziejczyk N. Hoffmann N. Białobrzeska P. Mielniczuk
Institute of Psychology, Adam Mickiewicz University, 89 Szamarzewskiego Street, 60-568 Poznan,
S. U. Dombrowski
University of Stirling, Stirling, Scotland, UK
J Happiness Stud
and Booth 2005), neighborhood satisfaction (Shin et al. 2010), or satisfaction with body
˜oz and Ferguson 2012; Stokes and Frederick-Recascino 2003).
The focusing illusion, however, has not been universally shown for all domains of life.
Peoples’ daily concerns, values and life tasks for instance have been found to have an
enduring rather than illusory inﬂuence on personal well-being, suggesting that these factors
consistently exert inﬂuence on judgments about one’s life satisfaction (Oishi et al. 2003).
These enduring inﬂuence are in contrast to factors that inﬂuence well-being judgments
only if people focus their attention on them (Kahneman et al. 2006). Moreover, some
instances of such partial focusing illusions have been demonstrated. For instance, indi-
viduals have been shown to overestimate the impact of poverty on decreases in well-being
but their perception for high income remained accurate (Aknin et al. 2009).
As focusing illusions can misguide behavior and important life decisions (Kahneman
et al. 2006), it is imperative to understand the life domains where people tend to perceive a
skewed impact of a particular factor on their well-being. To date, evidence of the focusing
illusion has been found for income (Aknin et al. 2009; Kahneman et al. 2006), dating
(Strack et al. 1988), marriage (Schwarz et al. 1991), and health (Smith et al. 2006).
Life satisfaction has been often related to body satisfaction in the literature (Mun
Ferguson 2012;Sheldon2010; Stokes and Frederick-Recascino 2003). The aim of this study
was to demonstrate the focusing illusion regarding body satisfaction. We tested whether the
inﬂuence of body satisfaction on life satisfaction is stronger after facilitating a body satisfaction
focus. An experimental design allowed to compare spontaneous ratings of life satisfaction with
ratings immediately preceded by an explicit focus on body satisfaction. This approach con-
tributes to the understanding of situational factors that affect life satisfaction ratings.
2 How Focusing Illusion Works
Satisfaction with life is by deﬁnition a subjective judgment of well-being made by a given
individual (Diener et al. 1985). Due to its subjective origin, life satisfaction judgments
depend mostly on domains that readily come to mind when one thinks about his or her life,
e.g. marriage, health, or occupation (Oishi et al. 2003). Yet, such chronically accessible
information can be temporarily suppressed if other information becomes in the focal point
of attention at any given time (Strack et al. 1988). The focusing illusion is a particular
instance when human judgment is biased because an entire object (life, in this case) is
evaluated with attention restricted to a subset of that category (e.g. money). The attended
subset is overweighed relative to the unattended subset, which results in deceptive beliefs
about its everyday importance.
The focusing illusion has been studied using various methodological approaches.
Kahneman et al. (2006) asked participants to report the percentage of time spent in bad
mood on the previous day. The participants were also asked to estimate the time spent in
bad mood for individuals living in different circumstances (e.g., individuals on low and
high income). Individuals generally overestimated the prevalence of bad mood and
severely exaggerated predicted bad mood for people with undesirable life circumstances,
such as low income. In addition, income was correlated more strongly with global judg-
ment of life satisfaction, compared to daily ratings of happiness.
Aknin et al. (2009) asked participants to report their household income, their own life
satisfaction, and to predict the life satisfaction of 10 individuals with various incomes.
They compared predicted satisfaction with actual reports of life satisfaction and found that
participants overrated dissatisfaction with life among individuals with less income.
L. D. Kaczmarek et al.
In another experiment (Strack et al. 1988), participants were asked about their global
satisfaction with life and about their satisfaction with speciﬁc areas of their life, such as
romantic relationships (dating). When global life satisfaction questions were presented
before dating questions, the answers were not correlated. However, when items were
presented in a reversed order (focusing participants’ attention on their dating life ﬁrst), the
correlation was signiﬁcantly higher.
Smith et al. (2006) conducted a survey among Parkinson’s disease patients. Half of the
participants were told that the survey was conducted by a regional medical center and its topic
was related to Parkinson’s disease. The other group of participants was asked to participate in a
general population survey conducted by the university, assessing quality of life and happiness.
Result showed the correlation between general life satisfaction and speciﬁc health satisfaction
was high for the participants who were told that the survey focused on Parkinson’s disease
patients. When both groups were presented with speciﬁc health-related questions ﬁrst, the
correlation was high regardless of the introduction. This indicated that introductory information
and speciﬁc questions can prime answers for general questions regarding well-being.
3 Body Satisfaction and Life Satisfaction
Body satisfaction depends on several factors such as social inﬂuences (Sheldon 2010),
physical activity (Umstattd et al. 2011), and body weight (Sira and White 2010). It is
noteworthy that body satisfaction also differs across men and women, e.g. among women
body dissatisfaction rises with body weight, but while overweight men also wish to be
thinner, normal and underweight men wish for a larger physique (Phillips and de Man
2010). Furthermore, body dissatisfaction is common among both women and men and is
especially prominent in women who perceive themselves to be under family and peer
pressure to have ‘perfect’ bodies (Sheldon 2010).
Body satisfaction is a signiﬁcant aspect of well-being, as it can inﬂuence interpersonal
relations (Forand et al. 2010). Mun
˜oz and Ferguson (2012) showed a link between
women’s body satisfaction and satisfaction with life in general. Body satisfaction proved to
be a stronger predictor of life satisfaction than depression, parental affection, female
competition and television exposure to ideal body models. Yet, along the lines of focusing
illusion, we can assume that people moderately satisﬁed or dissatisﬁed with their body
have many daily experiences unrelated to their physical appearance. Once they stop
focusing on their body they tend to think about other everyday matters.
Given this empirical evidence and theoretical rationale, it is imperative to test to the extent
to which the relationship between body satisfaction and overall life satisfaction is enhanced
when individuals are explicitly focused on body satisfaction. Individuals from non-clinical
populations who are dissatisﬁed with their body may perceive most daily experiences as being
unrelated to their physical appearance. They do not evaluate their daily routines in relation to
body satisfaction unless something particular draws their attention to their body appearance.
4 The Present Study
Based on prior work on the focusing illusion (Smith et al. 2006), we predicted that the
relationship between body satisfaction and life satisfaction would be stronger for individuals
focused on their body compared to individuals with no speciﬁc focus. This hypothesis is based
on the focusing illusion theory, which stipulates that individuals focused on one aspect of life
Focusing Illusion and Body Satisfaction
tend to overestimate its impact on their overall satisfaction with life (Schkade and Kahneman
1998). More speciﬁcally, when body satisfaction is measured before life satisfaction the
relationship between body satisfaction and life satisfaction will be stronger than with the
reversed order, i.e. the correlation between body satisfaction and life satisfaction would be
moderated by the order of the administration of scales measuring both constructs. In testing
this hypothesis, we controlled for gender as body satisfaction differs between women and men
(Phillips and de Man 2010; Rysst and Klepp 2010).
The study involved 97 student volunteers (71.1 % women) aged between 19 and 36 years
(M=21.85, SD =2.74). Groups of students were approached before classes by experi-
menters and invited to a psychological study. Four participants were excluded as outliers:
three with body satisfaction and one with life satisfaction scores two standard deviations
below the mean. Consequently, there were 33 women and 14 men in the ‘body focus’
group and 32 women and 14 men in the ‘no focus’ group. The study was conducted in
accordance with guidelines provided by Institutional Ethics Committee. Participation in the
study was strictly voluntary and each participant signed an informed consent. Participants
received no incentives for taking part in this study.
We used the 5-item Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS; Diener et al. 1985) to measure
global cognitive judgments of one’s life. The SWLS includes items such as ‘The conditions
of my life are excellent’. The answering scale ranges from 1 ‘strongly disagree’ to 7
‘strongly agree’ (a=.82). The maximum score was 34 for this scale.
We also used the Body Satisfaction Scale (BSS; Neumark-Sztainer et al. 2004), which
assesses satisfaction with height, weight, body shape, waist, hips, thighs, stomach, face,
body build, and shoulders. The scale contains 12 items, which are rated on a 5-point Likert-
type scale, ranging from 1 ‘strong dissatisfaction’ to 5 ‘strong satisfaction’, (a=.88). The
maximum score was 41 in the present sample.
Both questionnaires were placed in separate envelopes. Participants were randomized to
ﬁrst complete the SWLS questionnaire (‘no focus’ group, n =48) or the BSS (‘body
focus’ group, n =49). The respective questionnaires were in an envelope marked with
letter A. The remaining scale was in envelope B. Participants were asked to complete the
questionnaire from envelope A ﬁrst and place it back into the envelope followed by
completing envelope B containing the remaining scale.
5.4 Statistical Analysis
Using ordinary least squares regression, we regressed satisfaction with life on body sat-
isfaction, gender (0 =women, 1 =men), a binary variable representing the order of the
L. D. Kaczmarek et al.
scales (0 =life satisfaction ﬁrst; 1 =body satisfaction ﬁrst), and two interaction terms: 1.
body satisfaction 9scale order and 2. body satisfaction 9gender. Prior to hypothesis
testing we performed Kolmogorov–Smirnov tests for normality with non-signiﬁcant dif-
ferences indicating the normal distribution of scores. For descriptive purposes we present
r-Pearson correlations. Moderations were tested with a PROCESS computational tool
(Hayes 2013) operating within IBM SPSS 21 statistical package that was also used for the
remaining statistical analyses.
Descriptive statistics and inter-correlations between study variables are presented in
Table 1. On average, participants were satisﬁed with their life and moderately satisﬁed
with their body. Non-signiﬁcant Kolmogorov–Smirnov tests for normality indicated that
scores were normally distributed for body satisfaction, K–S(93) =0.07, p[.05, and for
life satisfaction, K–S(93) =0.06, p[.05. The Pearson’s rcorrelation between body
satisfaction and life satisfaction was r=.16, p[.05 for the ‘no focus’ condition and
r=.48, p\.001 for the focusing condition.
The results indicated that individuals who were more satisﬁed with their body were also
more satisﬁed with their life, as indicated by a main effect of body satisfaction on life
satisfaction (Table 2). Furthermore, a signiﬁcant interaction term (body satisfac-
tion 9scale order) revealed that satisfaction with body had a stronger effect on life when
Table 1 Descriptive statistics
and inter-correlations among
Scales order coded as
0=satisfaction with life ﬁrst,
1=satisfaction with body ﬁrst.
gender coded as 0 =woman,
*p\.05; ** p \.01
1. Satisfaction with body
2. Satisfaction with life .35
3. Age .16 -.07
4. Gender .19 -.03 .36
5. Scales order .14 .18 -.09
M3.56 4.24 21.85
SD 0.56 1.05 2.79
Min. 1.92 1.6 19
Max. 4.67 6.8 36
Table 2 Determinants of life satisfaction
bSE bt p
Body satisfaction .39 .11 3.53 \.001
Scale order .25 .19 1.31 n.s.
Gender -.20 .21 -.94 n.s.
Body satisfaction 9Scale order .43 .22 1.99 \.05
Body satisfaction 9Gender -.08 .22 -.35 n.s.
Scale order coded as 0 =satisfaction with life ﬁrst, 1 =satisfaction with body ﬁrst. Gender coded as
0=woman, 1 =men
Focusing Illusion and Body Satisfaction
individuals were asked about body ﬁrst. This model explained 19 % of the variance in
satisfaction with life, R
=.188, F(5, 87) =4.05, p\.01 The interaction explained
additional 3.7 % of the variance in satisfaction in life, DR
=.037, F(1, 87) =3.97,
p\.05. The interaction of body satisfaction with gender was not signiﬁcant and did not
explain any additional amount of variance in satisfaction with life, DR
87) =0.12, p[.05.
In sum, the interaction of scale order comprised a signiﬁcant relationship between body
satisfaction and life satisfaction when body satisfaction was reported ﬁrst, b=.62, SE
b=.18, p\.001 for women and b=.55, SE b =.19, p\.01 for men, and a non-
signiﬁcant relationship when participants were asked about their life ﬁrst, b=.19, SE
b=.16, p=.25 for women, and b=.12, SE b =.21, p=.58 for men (see Fig. 1).
The present study examined whether overall body satisfaction is prone to the focusing
illusion. We tested if a temporal (experimentally induced) evaluative focus on body can
inﬂuence judgments about one’s overall satisfaction with life. Built on prior experimental
work where the order of satisfaction measures was manipulated resulting in the focusing
illusion (Strack et al. 1988), we randomized participants to different conditions asking
questions about either the body or about life ﬁrst. In line with predictions, individuals
satisﬁed with their body were more likely to report higher satisfaction with life when they
were asked about their body satisfaction ﬁrst. This conditional effect signiﬁcantly added to
a baseline correlation between both domains of satisfaction.
This study documented a partial focusing illusion regarding body satisfaction, i.e. a
situation when the baseline correlation is enhanced by an explicit focus on a speciﬁc aspect
of life. This baseline correlation suggests that body satisfaction is spontaneously taken into
consideration while forming judgments about satisfaction with life (Schimmack and Oishi
2005). It demonstrates the validity of self-report life-satisfaction measures, even if
manipulations with temporarily accessible information have an inﬂuence on responses.
However, individuals who were made to focus on their body increasingly relied on body
information in their ratings of satisfaction with life, as indicated by an increase in
explained variance in satisfaction with life. Similar instances of partial focusing were
observed in previous studies (Aknin et al. 2009).
Fig. 1 Relationship between body satisfaction and satisfaction with life depending on focus (i.e. the order
of scales administration) in men (left) and women (right)
L. D. Kaczmarek et al.
It is important to identify those aspects of life that people consider signiﬁcant for their
happiness. Focusing attention on aspects of life with which one is satisﬁed promotes
signiﬁcant, yet often transient, increases in well-being (Emmons and McCullough 2003;
Seligman et al. 2005; Toepfer et al. 2012). Furthermore, the literature on positive psy-
chology interventions provides numerous avenues as to how a focus on positive aspects of
the future self can result in increased happiness (Layous et al. 2013). A promising study
has collected data from a sample of self-selected individuals dissatisﬁed with their body
(Geraghty et al. 2010). A brief psychological intervention aimed at fostering a positive
focus was efﬁcacious in reducing body dissatisfaction with effects comparable to elements
of cognitive therapy (monitoring and restructuring) but with higher attrition. Further
studies might test how focusing illusion could be used to increase well-being of individuals
dissatisﬁed with their body, and how those who are satisﬁed already can reap additional
Asking about life satisfaction ﬁrst and its hypothetical correlates later may promote the
identiﬁcation of those speciﬁc aspects of life that may have more enduring effects on
overall well-being, such as becoming a spouse or a parent (Kohler et al. 2005). Some
problems within the ﬁeld of well-being research require measures to inﬂuence particular
mind-set of participants. For instance, the utility of indicators used in national surveys
depends on procedures that minimize the unique characteristics of a particular moment
(Campbell et al. 1976). The current study provided new experimental evidence that the
focusing illusion can be a psychometric problem for studies on satisfaction with life. The
order of questionnaires measuring satisfaction is meaningful (Smith et al. 2006). More
speciﬁcally, starting with questions about speciﬁc satisfaction favors identiﬁcation of these
aspects of well-being that can anchor peoples’ satisfaction with life in general. Further
studies might test which of the several available instruments for the measurement of
satisfaction with life are more prone or resistant to the focusing illusion (Cummins et al.
2003; Diener et al. 1985). Moreover, it seems that latent state-trait approaches that allow to
separate traits from occasion speciﬁc inﬂuences might be used to minimize the inﬂuences
of situational factors and attenuate the measurement of satisfaction from random error due
to a temporal focus (Eid and Diener 2004).
Our study may have practical implications. By popularizing images of happy and good-
looking people, the media promotes the belief that one would be lastingly happy if only his
or her body were closer to the ideal. This illusion is also pervasive in novels. Kaminski and
Magee (2013) showed that reading about protagonists with low body esteem predicted
increased weight concerns among college women. Moreover, media inﬂuence is a sig-
niﬁcant predictor of consideration of cosmetic surgery (Swami 2009) and increasing
numbers of cosmetic surgeries linked with body image disturbances have been observed
(Callaghan et al. 2011). The ideal promoted excessively in media contributes heavily to
body image. Internalization of such an ideal is regarded as a risk factor for eating dis-
turbance (Homan 2010).
The limitation of this study may include its moderate sample size, relatively lower
number of male participants in the sample, and not accounting for the body mass index of
participants. Moreover, satisfaction scores for body and life were normally distributed,
with the mean suggesting that the participants were generally satisﬁed with their life and
with their body. Further studies might test if the same pattern of results hold for clinical
groups, for instance for those who are dissatisﬁed with their body or depressed individuals.
Furthermore, the approach we used is only one of the validated methods of testing the
focusing illusions. Different research paradigms might be used (e.g. longitudinal designs)
to provide a more robust and versatile picture of the body focusing illusion. Further
Focusing Illusion and Body Satisfaction
research could test if the efforts to improve life satisfaction by improving body satisfaction
are likely to fulﬁll the expectations. Moreover, despite the effects of focusing illusion being
valid on a group level, there can be meaningful individual differences (random effects)
with some individuals more and some individuals less prone to the body satisfaction
focusing illusion. Larger sample sizes combined with other statistical analysis methods
(e.g. multilevel modeling) might be used to disentangle ﬁxed and random effects of body
satisfaction on satisfaction with life. Lastly, more advanced experimental tests might be
developed to examine the focusing illusion. In the present study, individuals are randomly
assigned to a group where the focus in a given domain is facilitated or to a control group
with no speciﬁc focus. Stronger evidence for the focusing illusion would be provided if
each participant completed two trials. For instance, each participant could complete the
measure of life satisfaction and then body satisfaction, and several days after (to avoid
memory effects) the same participants could complete the scales in the reversed order. The
focusing illusion would be indicated by signiﬁcant within-subject rather than between-
subject differences. Furthermore, each participant could repeat the same experiment with a
broader range of life domains which would overcome a general limitation of current
experimental studies on the focusing illusion that examine single life domains (e.g. Smith
et al. 2006).
In conclusion, the focusing illusion regarding body satisfaction pertains to the problem
of consequences of counterfactual thinking. People can act upon motivations resulting
from ‘‘what-if’’ considerations. Some people can engage in strategies to improve their body
satisfaction, expecting that these efforts will make them happier, i.e. physical training,
dieting or cosmetic surgery. Focusing illusion is a caveat not only for researchers, but also
for lay people who try to look better and be happier.
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Focusing Illusion and Body Satisfaction